AS Foreign Minister in the New Malaysia, Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah counts himself fortunate.
There is a lot he needs to tackle as the country’s top diplomat after Pakatan Harapan’s win at the May 9 general election.
They include engaging with Malaysia’s friends, partners and allies abroad to explain the changes that have taken place and how it affects the country’s relationship with other nations.
On this score, Saifuddin said having Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as a boss is a big help.
Dr Mahathir was very involved in Malaysia’s foreign policy when he first served as the country’s leader from 1981 to 2003, and remains very much hands on now.
“When I follow up on issues or initiate discussions, the fact that Dr Mahathir is such a well-known figure not only in the region but throughout the world also makes it easier to present our case,” Saifuddin told The Star.
The soft-spoken 57-year-old from Mentakab, Pahang, spoke on several topics during the interview.
They ranged from his priorities as minister to his view of the heated contest for the PKR deputy presidency between incumbent Datuk Seri Azmin Ali and vice-president Rafizi Ramli.
Unlike some of his Cabinet colleagues who have no top-level public administrative experience, Saifuddin has some experience, having served as Deputy Minister in the previous Barisan Nasional government.
After winning the Temerloh Parliament seat in the 2008 general election, Saifuddin was appointed Deputy Entrepreneur and Cooperative Development Minister. Then he was made Deputy Higher Education in April 2009.
In September 2013, Saifuddin was also appointed CEO of Global Movement of Moderates Foundation (GMM).
His progressive views on politics and moderation however drew flak from various quarters including within his own party.
In 2015, after the 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal and RM2.6bil political donation issue erupted, Saifuddin quit Umno along with his position in GMM, and joined PKR.
He was appointed to the party supreme council, won the Indera Mahkota parliament seat in the general election and was appointed Foreign Minister on July 2.
Saifuddin says one of the current priorities for Wisma Putra is to explain to foreign diplomats and to other countries what Malaysia Baharu (New Malaysia) is all about.
“Because they all know Dr Mahathir, more often than not we don’t have to explain so much except to convey that this is a new Government and we are doing certain things quite differently from the previous Government.
“There are also certain issues we are more comfortable discussing compared to the previous Government.”
Another important task, he said, is to assure all countries that the basic principles of Malaysia’s foreign policy remain unchanged.
Asean, for example, will remain at the top of Malaysia’s foreign policy agenda.
Malaysia will also continue to strive for close ties with all countries, though some agreements need to be reviewed, he explained.
Malaysia will remain as a member of the Non-Aligned Movement, and there will be renewed emphasis on certain policies such as the Look East Policy which Tun Dr Mahathir introduced in 1982, he said.
Away from his ministerial duties, Saifuddin is also a contesting in the upcoming PKR election that will be held between Sept 14 and Oct 13.
He is running for a seat on the party supreme council in what is perhaps PKR’s hottest election.
There’s a lot of talk that PKR has split into two rival factions led by Azmin and Rafizi, with both camps slugging it out to gain the upper hand.
When asked, Saifuddin said he supports Azmin for the number two post in the party.
He said Malaysians want a Government that is stable and which can perform. As such, it’s important to maintain stability in the line-up of PKR’s top leaders and in Cabinet.
“Things are working well so far, so I don’t see any issue that would require us to make a major change in the line-up of party leaders.” He said Malaysia does not yet practise a system where there is a high-ranking ruling party leader who is not in the Cabinet.
“If we have a system where you can be the chairman or deputy chairman of the party but you are not in Cabinet then I have no issue in supporting Rafizi.
“But the current situation is that when you are the leader of the party you are in the Cabinet, so what choice do I have but to choose stability,” said Saifuddin.
He is referring to the question mark which will arise on the fate of Azmin, who is currently Economic Affairs Minister, if he were to lose to Rafizi in the PKR polls.
Saifuddin cited examples in Japan and India to highlight the possible fate of the Pakatan Government if the ruling coalition were to become unstable.
In Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party was in Government for a long time, then lost power in a 1993 election.
The new Government that replaced it only lasted for a year before it too collapsed due to internal problems.
In India, the long-ruling Indian National Congress was defeated in 1977.
Again, the new Government came to power was defeated after just three years due to internal conflict.
“We can’t afford this. I am choosing Azmin not because he is better than Rafizi but for stability and continuity of the Pakatan Harapan Government,” said Saifuddin.
Among his predecessors as Foreign Minister, Saifuddin said he considers the late Tun Muhammad Ghazali Shafie as the best Foreign Minister Malaysia has ever had.
Like Saifuddin, Ghazali also hailed from Pahang. He was a renowned diplomat who served as the Foreign Ministry’s secretary-general and was Foreign Minister from 1981 to 1984.
Filling the shoes of the legendary “King Ghaz” as Ghazali was popularly known is a big undertaking by any measure.
For Saifuddin, the challenge is to prove to Malaysians that the Government can deliver.
Asked how he saw the significance of this year’s Merdeka anniversary, Saifuddin said the country was now in the second phase of the Reformasi movement.
“The first phase of Reformasi was where Malaysians fought hard for the reforms.
“Now we have the opportunity to implement it, which makes it even more challenging,” he said.